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Trust the Texts

Everyone who studies the Bible will eventually ask, if there are no surviving original manuscripts, if every manuscript we have is a copy or a copy of a copy, how do we know the available manuscripts are reliable? This is undeniably a vital question. If the ancient texts we possess are not accurate, how can we know the Bible we have is really the Word of God?

In his introduction, Greenlee offers three basic reasons to trust the texts from which our Bibles are translated: the vast number of manuscripts available for comparison, the age of the surviving manuscripts, and the consistency of the surviving manuscripts.

[T]he number of available mss. of the N.T. is overwhelmingly greater than those of any other work of ancient literature. . . . The earliest extant mss. of the N.T. were written much closer to the date of the original writing than is the case in almost any other piece of ancient literature.

. . . The plays of Aeschylus are known in some fifty mss., the works of Sophocles in one hundred, the Greek Anthology and the Annals of Tacitus in one ms. each, the poems of Catullus in three hundred of independent value; while there are a few hundred known mss. of works of Euripides, Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. In the case of the N.T., in sharp contrast, there are over 4000 extant mss. in Greek, 8000 in Latin, and 1000 in other languages. As regards the time interval between the extant mss. and the autograph, the oldest known mss. of most of the classical Greek authors are dated a thousand years or more after the author’s death. The time interval for the Latin authors is somewhat less, varying down to a minimum of three centuries in the case of Virgil. In the case of the N.T., however, two of the most important mss. Were written within 300 years after the N.T. was completed, and some virtually complete N.T. books as well as extensive fragmentary mss. of many parts of the N.T. date back to one century of the original writings. Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the ancient classics, even though the earliest mss. were written so long after the original writings and the number of extant mss. is in many instances so small, it is clear that the reliability of the text of the N.T. is likewise assured.

In the N.T. and in other ancient literature as well, there is no question concerning the reading of most of the words. Textual criticism needs to operate in only a limited portion of the text. . . . the main body of the text and its general sense are left untouched . . . textual criticism engages in turning a magnifying glass upon some of the details.

—J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Eerdmans, 1964), 15–17.


July 11, 2008

Posted 2020·03·03 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Reruns

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